July 22, 2011

Does the problem need a name?

Intuitively we have all kinds of assumptions about what it takes to solve problems. A first example is that it is necessary to know the cause of a problem before we can solve it. That this is not always the case is illustrated in this post: Subtly transforming the negative into positive. A second example of such assumptions is that big problems ask for big approaches. Intuitively we think that the size of the approach needs to correspond to the size of the problem. According to this view small problems require small approaches and big problems require big approaches. But big and complex problems actually are often better tackled with incremental, self-selected, and contextualized small changes. A posts which illustrates this is Small steps are often the only way to start tackling problems that nearly overwhelm us.

A third example which is not often mentioned is that solving problems requires that we first define the problem well and name it before we can solve it. Often we think that naming the problem is the best first step toward solving it. A saying which describes this assumption well is "To name it is to tame it." But this assumption, too, is not always correct. Take for instance Sue Young's support group approach for solving bullying problems. In this approach the problem is not named at all. Instead, right from the start, the facilitator and the children work towards the preferred situation. That the problem is not named ("there is bullying problem!") makes it easy for all the children to cooperate without feeling accused and without getting defensive.

Conflict management is another example of a situation in which it is often not necessary to name the problem. Often it is possible to focus directly on the preferred future ("how would you notice things are moving in the right direction, again?"). When you try to define the problem well and to name it you may notice how hard it can be to reach agreement about that. People often view situations from quite different perspectives and usually have quite different interpretations of what has happened. Naming the problem can be a very time-consuming exercise and it is uncertain whether you may able to accomplish it. Fortunately, it is often not necessary to name problems. Often, the direct route to solutions can be taken by focusing directly on the preferred situation and on what has been working. 

1 comment:

  1. Yup, the problem is almost always a construct. When someone says the building is on fire it's a real, live, quantifiable problem. When the 'problem' is between people, it's definition is almost always a poor description of the situation.

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